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Underground tours resume at Minnesota's oldest iron mine

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. Hopefully, you're not afraid of the dark or of heights because we're about to plunge more than 2,300 feet underground, into Minnesota's oldest iron ore mine. The state provides most of America's iron ore. This mine has been closed for four years, first during the pandemic, then for maintenance. Now it's open again, and Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker tagged along with a fifth-grade class on a recent tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINE CAGE BUZZER)

SARAH GUY-LEVAR: Alright, let's go. In you go.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: Sarah Guy-Levar herds about a dozen kids and several adults into a disconcertingly small steel cage for the descent into the Soudan Underground Mine. It's only 5 feet deep, 6 1/2 feet across. We're squashed like sardines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINE CAGE DROPPING)

GUY-LEVAR: In the days of mining, 18 to 21 full-grown men in this cage.

KRAKER: The cage zooms down through the rock, rattling as it plummets down, down, dropping 1,000 feet per minute to the 27th - and deepest - level of the mine.

KAREL WINKELAAR: Watch your step.

KRAKER: At the bottom, a sign tells us we are 2,341 feet below the surface, 689 feet below sea level.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINE TRAIN)

KRAKER: Then we hop on a train and ride nearly a mile to the last area that was mined.

WINKELAAR: All right, come on over here, guys. Everybody...

KRAKER: Tour guide Karel Winkelaar leads the way into a large cavern dug out of the rock.

WINKELAAR: This was the ore body that we're in right now. You mined all the ore from overhead.

KRAKER: The Soudan Mine opened in 1882. The ore here was prized to make the steel vital to the nation's industrial growth and to fight in World Wars I and II.

WINKELAAR: I want you guys to come in a little closer.

KRAKER: Winkelaar shuts off the lights. It's so dark, no one can see their hands. He lights a small candle, just as miners would have a century ago.

WINKELAAR: This candle happens to be put into what we call a corner sconce, and that corner sconce is designed to be worn in your hard hat like this. You put it on here, and now you can go to work and work hands-free.

KRAKER: Mine workers toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week, and only got paid for the ore they hauled up. Winkelaar tells the students most of them were immigrants from Eastern Europe.

WINKELAAR: The company is going to be taking advantage of you. You guys are immigrants. We're going to give you the jobs that nobody else wants to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINE CAGE BUZZER)

GUY-LEVAR: All right, we're ready to load.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINE CAGE ASCENDING)

KRAKER: After the three-minute ride back to daylight, we visit the engine house. Three-thousand-foot-long steel cables unspool on a giant drum to lower the cages down the shaft. Jesse Gornick and Steve Yapel maintain the 100-year-old electric hoist. Both their grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked here. Gornick says they're custodians of history.

JESSE GORNICK: And expressing the knowledge and the importance of mining to others and kind of keeping it alive for future generations to understand why it's important.

KRAKER: This is the 59th summer of tours at the Soudan Mine, since it became a state park in 1965. Sarah Guy-Levar, the park's interpretive supervisor, says crews recently completed a nearly $10 million project to reconstruct part of the mine shaft.

GUY-LEVAR: So we don't have to worry about anything caving in onto the cages, and it is a smooth ride right now. I know it felt really bumpy and shaky to you, but the engineers did a great job.

KRAKER: About 35,000 people tour the mine every year, and Guy-Levar expects pent-up demand to take this deep dive into Minnesota history.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker, in Soudan, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORMAN BLAKE'S "SLEEPY EYED JOE/INDIAN CREEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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